Of all the superheroes to grace the pages of comics half a century ago, few were greeted with such enthusiasm, and still fewer consigned to such subsequent neglect, as handsome, wise-cracking "freelance gynaecologist" Roger P Cremaster.
Unlike many comic-strip creations, who were criticized for violence or other conduct unbecoming to American youth, Cremaster at the height of his fame was praised by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson as "a truly positive role model for boys" and by the American Medical Association as "a major contribution to the cause of medical humanitarianism". Even in 1954, when Cremaster had been appearing regularly for only eighteen months, a junior senator named Joseph R McCarthy praised the strip for its "upright, deep-down Americanism", while in the United Kingdom Harold Macmillan said in 1959 that Toolbox,
the publication in which Cremaster appeared, was the only American comic he would happily permit his servants to read.
In fact, for over twenty years, from 1952 until the calamitous aftermath of Roe v Wade, Cremaster was the mainstay of Toolbox,
the original title of which had been The Young American's Toolbox of Usefulness and Fun.
Issue 159, in which Cremaster makes his first appearance in a one-panel joke featuring what was to become one of his main catch-phrases ("No need for the cloakroom, I've brought my own coathanger"), is now a valued collector's item, and copies have been known to fetch five-figure sums, and cause fights resulting in concussions, broken bones and jail sentences, at auction. Roger would probably not be displeased.
After his first appearance in Toolbox,
it took nearly eight more months before the comic's editor, Baddeley Mulbright, realised the new strip's potential. The main attraction of Toolbox
at the time was Sergeant Gurliman, a US Marine drill instructor noted for showing his vulnerable, sympathetic side too soon for the good of his recruits, who when faced with genuine war conditions usually ended up "fragging" their officers or committing suicide in the face of the enemy. Gurliman was the creation of Hudibras J Peabody, who famously persuaded Mulbright to give Cremaster his head by allowing the author, Carlton Pinkley, to develop the character in a full-page story. This, of course, was the famous "Lady in a Jam". Although the basics of Cremaster's character, including the flowing locks and the firm yet compassionate cupid's bow lips, are already in place, the story is fairly routine and lacks the finer inventive touches which would characterise the strip in its prime. Also, the hero was billed as "Roger Cremaster, Gay Gynaecologist", over the objections of both Pinkley and Peabody, on the grounds that the term "Abortionist" would have given away the story's ending and spoiled the suspense.
The next few stories, in all of which Cremaster operated under his "gynaecologist" rubric, worked variations on the same theme, with "Girl in a Mess", "A Bundle of Trouble" and "Ready to Drop" perhaps the most memorable examples. The last of these titles is noted for the appearance of Cremaster's notorious catch-phrase, "No chemicals, sweetie, just suction", quotation of which was to cause unwonted hilarity in sober civics classes for many months to come. In fact, an up-and-coming politician named Lyndon Johnson was so taken with the line that ten years later he planned to use it in a speech about the dangers of a "quagmire" in Vietnam, and was prevented from doing so only by fears of a liberal backlash.
In any event, writer-illustrator Carlton Pinkley had larger ambitions for his creation, and he soon grew bored with the formulaic storylines requested by Mulbright. Generally, a teenage girl (or, less often, a society belle) would request Cremaster to "get her out of a jam", which task the good doctor would accomplish with panache in the final panels. Sympathetic boyfriends would be given affectionate advice, while heels and no-goods could expect to be tied face-down to a gurney and forcibly penetrated from behind, usually to the accompaniment of an edifying lecture on urology and puns of the calibre of "no engagement ring for her - that's a busted sphincter-ring for you".
Despite Mulbright's misgivings, Pinkley began creating stories in which the climax did not necessarily involve terminating a pregnancy. More and more often, plots were structured around the difficulties Cremaster had to overcome in order to perform his duties, so that instead of ending with a surgical operation a strip would conclude with the blackmail or castration of some interfering authority figure. Other stories dwelt on the practical problems of finding the proper equipment while continually on the run from a government which accused him of murder; on at least three occasions Roger was forced to relieve a rape victim's agonies armed only with a vacuum cleaner and the utensils in her grandmother's kitchen.
Although Marvel and DC Comics' science-fiction superheroes attained great popularity during this time, Pinkley was never enthusiastic about endowing Roger P Cremaster with fantastic powers. The Gay Abortionist relied solely on his surgical skills and bitchy wit to get himself out of trouble while saving the world from overpopulation. A half-hearted attempt was made to give Cremaster a mild-mannered public persona after the fashion of Superman's Clark Kent or Batman's Bruce Wayne; but in Roger's case it was merely an ordinary, legal medical practice, which he operated under his own name and a crew-cut wig to disguise his unfashionably luxuriant hair. His nurse, Canulla fforbes-fforceps, an English heiress who had fallen on hard times, knew Roger's secret and occasionally assisted him on his adventures; but Pinkley made no secret of his belief that "pretty young sidekicks and crypto-heterosexual banter" were strictly the stuff of Batman and Robin.
Cremaster's own popularity continued unabated through the sixties, with the stories becoming ever more spectacular in the wake of the James Bond phenomenon and the indulgence of new editor Bunty Spurlock. Although Roger performed abortions in a number of exotic locations (including a zero-gravity space station, with results messy enough to get Toolbox
's Parental Relations switchboard jammed with complaints for ten solid hours) on the girlfriends of various flamboyant enemies of humanity (often ending with the homily, "Remember, girls and boys - unwanted children make crazy adults!"), Pinkley's creative juices were showing signs of inhibited discharge. He relied increasingly on in-jokes like Roger's persistent misconception that DC Comics had something to do with "dilation and curettage performed in a ticklish fashion" or the inclusion of well-known but unpopular personalities of the day as "avoidable errors in contraception". Although Pinkley blamed Roe v Wade to the end of his days for Cremaster's demise, the truth is that the Gay Abortionist had long since shot his bolt.
Nevertheless, he went out in style, excoriating the judges for taking the challenge out of abortion and for "reducing me to just one more fallopian footler". The final frames of the February 1973 issue of Toolbox
see Roger setting sail for "parts unknown, where certain parts are still forbidden territory", and incidentally performing his first and only legal abortion aboard ship, much to his own disgust. Carlton Pinkley died in 1978, reputedly from an exploding pancreas at the premiére of Superman The Movie,
still trying to persuade various publishers large and small to help him resurrect Roger Cremaster.
Film rights to the character were sold as early as the mid-fifties, but projects for a Gay Abortionist movie never got beyond the script stage. In part, this was due to the impracticality under the Production Code of showing an abortionist at work; among other objections, it was noted at a preliminary meeting at MGM in 1961, neither contemporary special effects nor cinematography in black and white or Technicolor could hope to convey "a true feeling for the subject at hand". Nevertheless, the influence of the Cremaster stories is palpable in such diverse works as Zorro, Pulp Fiction,
TV series such as Casualty
and even, deeply subtextually, The Lord of the Rings.
It is to be hoped that modern movie technology will one day afford a new generation the opportunity to acquaint itself with the exploits of Roger Cremaster. He is a role model whose time has come anew.